Stepping Out: Sarah Hyde plays footsie with centuries of fashion, visiting an exhibition of fascinating, varied footwear and examining our global obsession with beautiful shoes - the feet they fit and the stories they tell.



French crepe de chine silk shoes with beading and suede covered heel, c.1920s


“I have this little substance abuse problem... expensive footwear” (Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City). One can only imagine what our favorite fictional shoe-addict, Carrie Bradshaw, would have made of the glorious exhibition, Shoes: Inside Out, currently on show at the Arc in Winchester, UK. I suspect she would have been caught running across Winchester's cobbles with a pair or two stowed in her purse.

After all, this intriguing exhibition of fabulous footwear confirms that Bradshaw is far from the first person to fall (as their dopamine levels rise) for a pair of pretty, yet foolishly impractical and ridiculously expensive, shoes. And just one look at the highly crafted, much-loved shoes reveals designers have known this for centuries.


Women's brocaded satin shoes, c.1730-1750


Take solace dear reader, after visiting the highly-curated exhibition - which displays 70 pairs of shoes, dating as far back as 11AD - I can assure you that Carrie’s “problem”, and perhaps yours and mine, is a human affliction as old as the hills. And although the focus of the exhibition is not on frivolity - many sensible, serious, and social issues are raised - if you are a fool for shoes, it is hard to focus on much else.

In a sense, this exhibition - which explores how shoes have shaped, and been shaped by, society - turns each visitor into Prince Charming, eager to uncover the owner of a shoe. Antique shoes, like antique clothes or furniture, encourage us to imagine a narrative and cast a thousand stories. Among the beauties on display are found objects, cast adrift from their story, such as a bone skate from the 10th or 11th century, and a child's shoe, discovered in the chimney of a Hampshire home.


Women's ankle boots with elasticated sides, c.1865 


There are also several examples of fine Georgian shoes, created from Spitalfields silk and joined together with a bow or a buckle. Curiously, these delicately crafted bespoke shoes were produced straight, so they could fit on either foot. 

A form or outer clog (with bows and ribbons) was created, a distant but significantly more attractive cousin of the modern Galosh. With thick silk stockings and a blushing giggle, it’s easy to understand how a fascination with women’s soft naked toes, and feet encased in stockings and expensive shoes, transcends time.


Canvas shoes worked in silk, embroidered with strawberries c.1760


The pair that really captured my attention, however, were made of canvas worked in silk, c.1760, black and embroidered with strawberries (pictured above). These are listed as wedding shoes, and the strawberries as a symbol of fertility. Who chose these gorgeous, frivolous shoes, and kept them preserved and treasured?

With almost no information about the provenance of the shoes, they ask a myriad of questions about the wearer. Questions we can likely never answer, and yet here they are, still grabbing attention almost 300 years after their manufacture.


Flamingo pink quilted satin, ostrich feather, silk braid, leather sole, c.1920-1930


Shoes are laced with fairy tales and mythology; the idea that beautiful shoes may allow us to step into more interesting or exciting realities has been around for a long time, indeed it is perpetuated by shoe designers to this day. Shoe trends seem to be cyclical; square toes or pointy, high heels, mid heels or flats, all styles came and went with a reassuring regularity in the past, just as they do today.

In Elizabethan times, high heeled shoes were mostly masculine - designed to help a rider stay in their stirrups - while platform soles appeared as early as the Tudor age. High heeled shoes with buckles came in and out of fashion too, as did ballet flats.


Women's ribbed silk brocade shoes, c.1770-1789


In Regency times ballet flats were popular, matching the new simplicity of the ‘empire line’ - a style we associate with Jane Austen, yet was actually imported from France. A version of ballet flats are about to come back into fashion, and I suspect a Regency woman would feel just as familiar with the modern version. 

Many of the antique and vintage shoes displayed in this show could have been designed today, while many have undoubtedly inspired contemporary designs. One style that has almost always been in fashion, unchanged, is the mule. These backless shoes for both men and women are on display in Winchester, carefully embroidered with metal threads in rich velvets. If only you could buy them now.


Beaded moccasin slippers, chamois leather, velvet apron, c.1855-1900


Technical innovations did change footwear - elastic sides, for example, were a Victorian invention allowing tighter-fitting boots for children and young people. The exhibition includes a gorgeous pair of these in white silk, with a black rosette of such incredible, impractical luxury that, for me at least, they could only have graced the foot of an imaginary, privileged Estella, haunting young Pip in his hobnailed clogs.

After all, shoes have always marked class divisions. The more decorative and less practical they are, the more they indicate the leisured, privileged lifestyle of the owner.


Women's ankle boots, deep violet velvet, with 12 pairs of eyelets, c.1890-1910


Like their owners, not all the shoes have happy stories. Some belonged to babes in arms who died, while there are pairs of clogs, and working boots, and officers’ boots from WWI. One can only imagine why they were kept for so long.

For me, one of the most fascinating pairs were the Women’s Utility Shoes, produced during WWII when luxuries were scarce, and materials and decoration were prescribed by law (Utility marked shoes were exempt from tax to encourage saving for the war effort). These sturdy court shoes - worn by women who took to office work during WWII - are so practically designed that, with their thick, solid three-inch heel, you could comfortably run for a bus in them.


Women's utility shoes, red leather, c.1942-51 © Hampshire Cultural Trust


However, despite their sensible, straitened aspects (note the cut-away leather side design for economic material use), the shoes were still produced in a joyful, flirty, cherry-red, a color that would likely have given their owner a little thrill when she unwrapped them from their utility-stamped box.

While this exhibition is unlikely to change hearts and minds - an incorrigible shoe fool will almost certainly not become sensible - it may at least promote mutual understanding, and reassure all shoe devotees that they are not alone.

For an incurable case, perhaps the next best thing is to apply some ‘creative” accounting advice from Imelda Marcos, who famously asserted:  “I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes; I had one thousand and sixty”.


Black satin Lotus shoe with embroidery, cotton lining and sole, c.1880-1920.


- - - - - - - - - - - 

Shoes: Inside Out, footsteps from the past, is showing until 6 March 2024.

Join the Cabana family